Once upon a life: Athol Fugard
One morning in 1982, Athol Fugard was sitting down to his usual breakfast of a poached egg with a double Jack Daniels, when his friend suggested he call AA
It was the start of the hardest journey he'd ever make.
It was on a winter's day in 1982
that I came to my senses and realised that I was an alcoholic. And that I was
in serious trouble. It started with breakfast at the hotel I preferred to stay
at when I was in
Whisky was my drink. If you're going
to be serious about drinking, and I was a professional, you've got to go for
whisky. I had acquired a taste for bourbon because it wasn't always possible to
get single malts in the pubs I drank in. I was a solitary drinker, but I was
very good company when I was drinking, like the millionaire in the Charlie
Chaplin film City Lights. I didn't turn into a monster. I've no record at all
of any violence, either by me or directed at me. And I had got to know
The irony in all of this is that it came at a time when I was on Broadway with a big success, my latest play, Master Harold and the Boys, which was about to embark on a national tour. It still amazes me that my drinking hadn't, by this point, affected my work (Master Harold is, if I'm honest, a well-crafted play). I don't doubt that it would have eventually damaged my writing, and most probably that was just around the corner.
I know for an absolute certainty that I was on the point of losing the handful of people who were terribly important to me in my life: firstly my family, my wife Sheila and daughter Lisa, and then a few trusted friends who I was putting through hell in their concern for my future. There was no way I couldn't be aware of how profoundly unhappy it made them; how much it hurt them to see me in that condition.
I'm still surprised when I think
about it now, ending up at night in the condition that I so many times did,
almost out of control, that I was never mugged, or walked out into busy traffic
to be hit by a bus. The previous weekend had been a disastrous trip to
That January morning I was eating with a friend, one of the designers working on Master Harold, someone I had known for years. As we sat together in the hotel's bar/restaurant, she suggested that it was time to take a very hard look at myself and what I was heading for, and asked me if I wanted to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. I immediately backed off and said no no-no-no, no, you just leave me alone. That was my first response, always, to anyone who wanted to help me and still is. Eventually, she had to leave and with astonishing discretion left a little paper napkin, placed on the table next to my drink, on which she had written the telephone number of the local AA branch.
There they were, the serviette and the drink. I sat looking at those two, I can promise you, for quite a long time. Which one did I go for? I ate my poached egg. I left the Jack Daniels. And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I was in big trouble.
Master Harold is about me as a little boy, and my father, who was an alcoholic. There's a thread running down the Fugard line of alcoholism. Thankfully I haven't passed it on to my child, a wonderful daughter who's stone-cold sober. But I had the tendency from my father, just as he had had it from his father.
There was no way of avoiding my
father's drinking. He was a jazz musician with a band called the
Orchestral Jazzonians in
He was a great storyteller, and to
reward me for the little favours I did for him he would re-tell potted versions
of the wonderful adventure novels he had read as a boy, such as Conan Doyle's
Sherlock Holmes stories or White Fang and Call of the Wild and The 39 Steps. I
loved him. But it was a very conflicted love. Every boy needs a role model
that he can be proud of and talk about to the other kids in the playground. But
it was impossible for me, a little white boy on 1940s
I took the napkin with me to the
phone box at the back of the restaurant, called the number. Got a voice, who
spoke simply: "How can we help?" I said: I think I'm in trouble with
my drinking. The voice asked if I wanted to attend a meeting. I said yes. I was
given the address of an episcopal church in
I have survived a lot of things in the course of my 78 years, and I know I have an instinct for survival. When the meeting was over, that instinct took me back to my hotel room and not to my bar. I don't think I slept that night. I knew I had an even more painful job ahead of me the next morning. When I met my producer, before the meeting to fire the young actor, he noticed that my hand was shaking and asked why. I told him I was going to try and stop drinking. He said: "Listen, take my advice don't stop drinking today."
But I didn't drink anything that
day. I never went back to
The bigger problem was that I believed that, in a certain way, alcohol was necessary for me as a writer. Not that I needed to be drunk, but I needed the stimulus and the imaginative freedom that it gave me. Night-time is when I brainstorm; last thing, when the family's asleep and I'm alone, I think about the next day's writing and plan a strategy for my assault on the blank page. And for that I needed whisky.
That was the terror I lived with
that I would not be able to write again. That little devil was on my shoulder
all through the next few years. Every time I wrote something, it was whispering
in my ear: "You should have a couple of drinks it will make everything
so much better." I don't know whether that's true or not, and it's too
late to worry about that now. But the next play I wrote, Road to
It is almost 30 years since that breakfast. I don't quite know how I did it, because I'm not somebody with a lot of self-control or willpower, but I haven't had a drink since. I call it my tea-bag birthday: 18 January 1982. On that day, every year, I get a box of herbal teas from the friend who scribbled the address on that paper napkin in the bar. I've never really shared the date with anyone else. But my friend remembers, and by God so do I.
From The Observer 31/10/10